Go with your gut

Prior to the IFST main guest speaking at the Institute’s lecture: ‘Does personalised nutrition have a future?’ we were promised someone who, at the very least, would encourage debate and trigger us into commentary. We weren’t disappointed.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology, King’s College London spoke about personalised nutrition, essentially nutrition advice based on an individual’s data, such as metabolism, biochemistry, and microbiome.

This subject has been talked about before, but what sets it apart from other approaches to health and wellness is it’s not simply about weight loss, it’s the information we can gather to better control blood sugar and cholesterol.

In telling us his journey to personalised nutrition, Tim Spector was hard (very hard, in fact) on diets. One size does not fit all, he said, and in relaying how he looked for measures to help him avoid another cardiac event and reduce his blood pressure, he concluded that information such as counting calories, avoiding high fat foods, never skipping a meal, eating little and often and using exercise to lose weight, is “all complete nonsense”.

He believes matters have changed however – maybe not in government issued guidelines – but certainly with opinion leaders. Interest in gut health has increased exponentially in recent years. Although the scientific research is still preliminary, the more we understand the gut microbiome, the more we see it could help manage various health conditions and diseases.

Personally tailored food based on our genetics and our unique biology will be the future.
Tim states that the main influencing factor on how our bodies respond to the foods we eat is our gut microbiome.

Tim quoted studies on the effect of nutrition on the gut microbiome. They discovered that even though twins have 100% the same DNA, they only have around 30% the same bacteria in their guts. So not only did we find out the microbiome is completely unique, but he also learnt everything it was linked to and just how much the microbiome does for us.
He has co-founded the personalised nutrition programme ZOE with the aim to test every individual’s gut microbiome, their responses to food and deliver a personalised plan of how best to eat.

I’m fascinated by how the microbiome affects our physical health. This programme could give me the opportunity to test three markers: the diversity of my gut microbiome, my blood sugar metabolism and blood fats clearance. Using these personalised insights, I can then make improvements to measure my specific blood sugar response to certain foods I consume so that I can eventually determine my personal set of foods that spike my blood sugar above my own normal range.

As I pointed out earlier, personalised nutrition isn’t new, but the fact that you can access some level of data related to the body means most people are willing to track their activity levels, heart rates, and oxygen saturation with some sort of device. Many other advances in science and research also give us valuable information regarding other tests on our biochemistry and microbiome.

How this fits in with the food and drink industry is the question. Lots of currently available information can be dismissed, but is this an alternative the general public can buy into?

I note there’s a scale of complexity when it comes to personalised nutrition that people just won’t commit the time to understanding. Work will have to be done from the ground up – from educating the trade to working with individuals to implement lifestyle changes. This is without embarking on the more complex issues around genetics and food types of foods.

More research is needed to study the relationship between genes, diet, and health, how foods affect us on a genetic level, and the microbiome.

That written, personalised nutrition is very interesting. It could be one way a lot of people can achieve a lasting dietary change for long term health benefits. There were plenty of take-homes from the lecture. The challenge is now translating the science to benefit consumers’ gut health.

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